Inventing solutions 

The real problem with city council's ban on soup kitchens

Those who know me personally know that I am something of an inventor. Hardly a day goes by when I do not build some device that addresses a pressing human need or, failing that, identifies a problem to be solved or, failing that, duplicates a previously-existing invention. Just yesterday I thought of a recorder that answers my cellphone while I am away, and I would have invented it, too, if I hadn't gotten distracted.

My point is that I am a mechanical genius, as anyone will tell you. They will also tell you I am extraordinarily selfish. My worst fear is that one of my inventions will change human society so fundamentally that I don't get paid for it. My second-worst fear is that someone will ask me for money, and my third-worst fear is that they will look at me when they do it.

Fortunately, my new invention solves 67 percent of those problems. The details are too scientific to describe here, but I have developed a suit that renders the wearer invisible to panhandlers.

I started out trying to build an invention that turned panhandlers invisible to me, but I ran into technical problems. My early prototypes relied on carbon-polymer tarps, but the test subjects kept wriggling out from under them. I thought I had successfully modified a kitchen colander to amplify my brainwaves and block all light within a 10-foot radius, but it turns out it had slipped down over my eyes.

Finally I settled on a modified snowsuit covered in microphones and old iPhone screens, which instantly camouflages me whenever someone says the words "change," "bus ticket" or "sir." Powered by an 18,000-watt generator that can be pulled in a convenient rickshaw, my invisibility-to-panhandlers suit runs on common household uranium and emits only hot dogs.

And therein lies the problem. I would love to share my invention with the world, but I'm afraid it qualifies as a soup kitchen. And as Missoulians who read or sleep under the newspaper know, the city council's Land Use and Planning Committee recently proposed an "urgency measure" that would prohibit new soup kitchens for the next six months.

Certainly, the problem is urgent. Under bridges, in parks and throughout our public spaces, Missoula is overrun with soup kitchens. I can barely walk downtown without someone offering me a sandwich. The committee's proposal to address this urban blight is long overdue, but it is also timely, because it will prevent the relocation of the Union Gospel Mission.

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You may know Union Gospel by its old name, the 3:16 Mission. The soup kitchen and religious outreach organization has undermined our community with free sandwiches for the poor at its Toole Avenue location for years, but it recently secured a lease for the former Sweetheart Bakery building on West Broadway.

Neighborhood residents have complained that Union Gospel Mission did not seek enough input from the community before moving ahead with its reckless plan to rent a warehouse and feed poor people out of it, and they brought their concerns to Councilman Adam Hertz, co-sponsor of the soup kitchen ban. I understand their frustration. You work your whole life to buy a house near a pawn shop, an adult novelty store and an abandoned bakery, and then some charity moves into the bakery and ruins the neighborhood.

Is there no limit to what the poor will ask from us? Those people are takers, pretty much by definition, and so Land Use and Planning has wisely moved to block Union Gospel's relocation by making the ban on new soup kitchens retroactive.

It sounds like the perfect law, prohibiting new indigent services not just within the city's geographic borders but also across a substantial swath of time. Like other historic attempts to create a utopian society, however, this ban on soup kitchens and homeless shelters could have an unintended chilling effect on entrepreneurs like myself.

How am I to test my new invention without accidentally getting some hot dogs near homeless people? Where would I go? That is why, with a heavy heart, I urge the city council to reconsider its urgency measure.

Sure, we'd all like to live in a world free of poor people and the soup kitchens that produce them. But at what cost? How many food-emitting invisibility suits must be consigned to history's junk heap before we realize that we are addressing the symptom and not the disease?

For years, scientists who studied poverty agreed that soup kitchens were the problem. Then, like Copernicus at his telescope, a few brave minds dared to suggest that the problem was poor people themselves. Only I—like Copernicus looking through his telescope and seeing, frighteningly, another telescope—have the vision to realize that the problem is poor people can see us.

Will government finally unshackle me so I can do something about it? I'll have to wait until the council hearing on Sept. 9 to find out, but frankly, I am not optimistic. Genius is never understood in its own time.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at

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